Facebook’s plan to intergrate Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp sparks antitrust anxiety

Facebook is planning to merge the technical infrastructure running its messaging platforms, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp.

The New York Times reported on Friday that Facebook plans to combine the technical infrastructure behind WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger, though the apps will continue to function as separate services. The paper cited four people familiar with the company’s plans.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify following a break during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Saul Loeb | AFP | Getty Images Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify following a break during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Facebook had made previous public statements suggesting they would remain separate, which they largely have to date. A 2014 FTC letter regarding the proposed WhatsApp acquisition quoted a Facebook spokesperson as saying that “WhatsApp will operate as a separate company and will honor its commitments to privacy and security.” A Times story from Facebook’s 2012 acquisition of Instagram noted “both companies expressed their commitment to run Instagram as an independent service.”

Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told the Times that Facebook’s plans would be “a terrible outcome for internet users,” and Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) took to Twitter to voice his concern.

“This is why there should have been far more scrutiny during Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp which now clearly seem like horizontal mergers that should have triggered antitrust scrutiny,” Khanna wrote.

At a hearing of international lawmakers in the U.K. in November, a Canadian representative suggested antitrust might be the solution to Facebook’s problems.

“What we’re regulating … are the symptoms,” said Charlie Angus, Canada’s vice chairman of the House of Commons’ standing committee on access to information, privacy and ethics. “Perhaps the best regulation would be antitrust.”

Proponents of breaking up Facebook have suggested spinning out WhatsApp or Instagram. The company’s family of apps sees north of 2.5 billion users each month and dominates mobile traffic. But Daniel Crane, a law professor at the University of Michigan, said that combining the back-end technology of the services shouldn’t factor into that issue.

“As a matter of antitrust law, that doesn’t really have any impact, and how Facebook chooses to organize its wholly-owned entities is not an antitrust issue,” Crane said. “The bigger question is how Facebook was allowed to own three media outlets in the first place.”

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